In choosing his career, Ben Butterfield knew above all else that he needed a job that would involve physical activity to keep him busy.
“I realized a long time ago that I needed a job that would keep me moving and keep my hands busy,” Butterfield said.
He found the incubator program for beginning farmers at the Intervale in Burlington and in the spring of 2013 he started Besteyfield Farm in Hinesburg with 400 laying chickens.
“The incubator program gives you a slightly lower lease rate and they give you financial, business planning and marketing advice,” he said.
Butterfield experimented with a variety of ways to house his chickens, starting with a coop built on an old RV frame, which he moved with a tractor until he realized the chickens weren’t sufficiently frightened of the motorized vehicle to get out of the way.
After moving the coop manually, he switched to semi-permanent hoop houses. At the end of the first year, his 400 birds multiplied to 8,000 and then 12,000.
After a brief stint in Charlotte, Butterfield learned about land he could lease on the property of an old riding school at Taproot Farm in Hinesburg. He took out the walls of the wings of the stall to make it suitable for his growing brood, which now stands at 2,600 birds.
“It’s a really good location and it’s great to have barn space,” he said. “Hoop houses are nice but this is much better.”
With pasture on both sides of the barn, Butterfield can rotate his fencing to give the birds access to grass. Additionally, Besteyfield Farm is part of a farming community with Family Cow Farmstand and Red Wagon Plants as neighbors.
Butterfield calls his product “pasture raised eggs from rather contented hens” and he thinks that tag line neatly sums things up.
“Part of why I got into this was, I developed some strong opinions on how I’d like to see animals raised. You need to make sure they have space for their natural behaviors like flying, pecking in the grass and taking dust baths. It’s hard to objectively assess the happiness of hens but here they have stuff to do and space to do it,” he explained.
For the first few years of farming, Butterfield worked at the University of Vermont Medical Center as an orderly, eventually supervising the evening shift. At the same time, his wife was finishing her degree at Goddard College and their son was born.
Now, Butterfield is able to devote his full attentions to the farm with the help of his father-in-law, a retired dairy farmer who works part-time with him. Besteyfield Farm recently added a few more retail locations and was the recipient of a grant from City Market, which helped fuel their expansion.
“Farming is a nice combination of talents I have and ones I wanted to acquire over time,” said Butterfield. “You get to do carpentry, plumbing, electrical work and general problem solving. It keeps you on your toes and thinking and moving. You have to work a lot, but at least you’re working on your own terms and with chickens you can create flexibility in your schedule.”
Butterfield thinks chickens get a bum rap for their intellectual capacity. “They’re instinctually smart,” he said. Butterfield may not know each of his chickens on an individual basis, but he enjoys observing their group interactions. “They have social hierarchy,” he said. “They’re kind of like little dragons or dinosaurs. I’m very entertained by them.”